Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan looked at data from the Saskatchewan Ministry of Health and were able to track the rate of diabetes in both First Nations and non-aboriginal populations in Saskatchewan from 1980 to 2005.
They found that diabetes more than tripled among First Nations youth, while increasing by less than two times in other young people. There was an almost four-fold increase among First Nations girls.
The researchers looked at the numbers, but did not specifically look at why the diabetes rate shot up.
"There just aren't any easy answers because we don't know all the factors that relate to this," said Dr. Roland Dyck, one of the researchers.
"Diet and also physical activity — it's a combination of those two things. Those are the most obvious sort of intermediary factors, but we still don't know a lot about how other things impact on all of that. Just the loss of traditional cultures, the stress involved in living in often very poor conditions and so on. All of those things probably contribute in some way as well."
Dyck noted that the numbers for girls might be higher because boys tend to be more active.
The study also noted that children born of women with diabetes are also at a higher risk for obesity and developing diabetes. Gestational diabetes also has higher rates in First Nations women than others, which increases the risk.
"It's likely that at least a certain proportion of those girls and boys with Type 2 diabetes had mothers who had diabetes during the pregnancy," said Dyck.
"We have some data from Saskatchewan that at least suggests that girls — female fetuses if I can put it that way — may be more susceptible to the impact of diabetes in their mothers. I don't want to play that too strongly because it's just a single study and it's epidemiological.
"But we did find that if you look at the offspring of women who've had diabetes during pregnancy, it's female infants who are more likely to have higher birth weights and also to have a higher risk for later Type 2 diabetes."
Dyck said that's worth a closer look.
An important limitation of the study was that it could not differentiate between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.
"But just from other work, we're relatively confident that most of what we're seeing in First Nations children, in particular those over the age of 10, is probably Type 2. Whereas Type 2 is still relatively more uncommon in non-First Nations children," said Dyck.
"In Saskatchewan most non-First Nations children are Caucasian. We know that in Caucasian children, Type 1 diabetes is much more likely to occur."
Type 1 diabetes — formerly known as juvenile diabetes — is usually diagnosed in children and teenagers. It occurs when the pancreas can't produce insulin, a hormone that controls the amount of glucose or sugar in the blood.
Type 2, which used to be called late-onset diabetes, develops when the pancreas doesn't produce enough insulin or the body can't effectively use the insulin it does produce. It is generally diagnosed later in life, though with the surge in obesity rates is increasingly seen at younger ages.
The researchers say the work covers a longer time period than any other childhood diabetes study done in Canada.
The study is published in the Canadian Journal of Diabetes.
— By Jennifer Graham in Regina
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